England’s human rights revolution, 1646–52
in Revolutionising politics
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Recent writing about human rights history focuses on the twentieth century. But in the 1640s and 1650s a handful of English contrarians campaigned for human rights by expanding on the language of ‘birthrights’ derived from theology and law. These campaigners did not invent human rights, nor can we place them in an intellectual genealogy leading to human rights today. Nonetheless, they began to imagine some key elements of modern human rights: as inherent and universal, inalienable and nonderogable. Such rights claims of the mid-seventeenth century offered a position from which to challenge the presumed primacy of sovereigns and their laws. The human rights of Gerrard Winstanley and his Digger companions differed from our own, resting as they did on a unique approach to biblical exegesis and on a mystical rationalism that modern historiography has a hard time explaining. Winstanley’s ideas focus on the community rather than the individual and are deeply concerned with human flourishing; they are unconcerned with laws and international institutions of the kind we now associate with human rights. Understanding these ideas reveals the human rights we do not have, especially for their insistence on universal access to food, clothing and shelter, the enjoyment of which Winstanley believed was entailed on all humanity by divine will.

Revolutionising politics

Culture and conflict in England, 1620–60

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